How to Trick Your Brain Into Practicing Patience


In an age when we can summon our favorite songs, movies, and TV shows with the press of a button, it’s hard not to suffer from impatience. But itching for instantaneous results is hardly a modern problem: In fact, it was hardwired during the evolution of the human brain.

Fast Company recently explored the roots of impatience, and according to them, the phenomenon is the result of two interacting mental systems. The first, which they dub the “go system,” controls drive and pushes us to achieve our goals. The second, the so-called “stop system,” keeps the first system in check: When your brain focuses on goals you can’t or don’t want to pursue at the current moment, this function works to dampen that sense of motivation. Unfortunately for the chronically impatient among us, the goal-driven part of our brains tends to be much stronger than the one meant to slow us down.

Fast Company suggests a few tips for dealing with impatient urges before they become overwhelming. One way to trick your brain into exercising patience is to put some distance between your thoughts and the object of your obsession. So if you find yourself eagerly waiting for a show to start, your meal to arrive, or your commute to be over, take the opportunity to practice mindful meditation. By focusing on your present surroundings without judgment, your impatience will hopefully melt away. On top of that, mindfulness has been shown to boost your attention span and increase tolerance for stress.

If quieting your thoughts proves to be too difficult in your most restless moments, Fast Company recommends choosing a distraction to keep yourself occupied. Finding another person to talk to is a quick way to reroute a one-track mind—a 1992 study found that people who interacted with others during a 10-minute wait were less stressed than those who didn’t socialize. If that isn’t an option for you, then it may help to come prepared the next time you expect impatience to strike. Be sure to pack something to read or buy a book of crossword puzzles. Technology can also be your friend in this case: Download hours worth of podcasts for when you're stuck in traffic, or devote yourself to earning a new high score in your favorite mobile game.

All that being said, feeling impatient every once in a while shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world. Not getting what you want the moment you want it is an unavoidable part of life, and the more practice you have experiencing impatience the better equipped you’ll be to deal with those unpleasant feelings in the future.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?

If you close your fingers in a car door or slam your funny bone into a wall, you might find your first reaction is to suck on your fingers or rub your elbow. Not only is this an instinctive self-soothing behavior, it's a pretty effective technique for temporarily calming pain signals to the brain.

But how and why does it work? To understand, you need to know about the dominant theory of how pain is communicated in the body.

In the 17th century, French scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that there were specific pain receptors in the body that "rang a bell in the brain" when a stimulus interacted with the body, Lorne Mendell, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Mental Floss. However, no study has effectively been able to identify receptors anywhere in the body that only respond to painful stimuli.

"You can activate certain nerve fibers that can lead to pain, but under other circumstances, they don't," Mendell says. In other words, the same nerve fibers that carry pain signals also carry other sensations.

In 1965, two researchers at MIT, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack, proposed what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Mendell, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of pain and who worked with both men on their pain studies, explains that their research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers.

"The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate," Mendell says. "So you have this idea of a gate control sitting across the entrance of the spinal cord, and that could either be open and produce pain, or the gate could be shut and reduce pain."

The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage.

Of the two main types of nerve fibers—large and small—the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).

Mendell explains that in studies where electric stimulation is applied to nerves, as the current is raised, the first fibers to be stimulated are the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increases, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. "When you do this in a patient at low intensity, the patient will recognize the stimulus, but it will not be painful," he says. "But when you increase the intensity of the stimulus, eventually you reach threshold where suddenly the patient will say, 'This is painful.'"

Thus, "the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced."

Now back to your pain. When you suck on a jammed finger or rub a banged shin, you're stimulating the large fibers with "counter irritation," Mendell says. The effect is "a decrease in the message, or the magnitude of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You basically shut the gate. That is what reduces pain."

This concept has created "a big industry" around treating pain with mild electrical stimulation, Mendell says, with the goal of stimulating those large fibers in the hopes they will shut the gate on the pain signals from the small fibers.

While counter irritation may not help dull the pain of serious injury, it may come in handy the next time you experience a bad bruise or a stubbed toe.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]


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